Worcester Business Journal
Community college helps workers train for new jobs in biotech
By Livia Gershon
Worcester Business Journal Staff Writer
January 19, 2009
Talk about helping workers adjust to a changing economy and one of the first topics that comes up is whether middle-aged employees can move from old-fashioned low-tech work to cutting-edge jobs with just a few months of training.
One answer to the question will come from a new program starting this month at Mount Wachusett Community College’s Devens campus.
The Biomanufacturing Workforce Training Program is a federally funded effort to get workers ready for entry-level positions in biotechnology.
The college developed the 15-week, 258-hour noncredit program with lots of input from Bristol-Myers Squibb, the company that dominates the Devens-area biomanufacturing scene, as well as other big players like Genzyme of Cambridge and smaller ones like New England Peptide of Gardner and Bionostics of Devens.
Over the next two and a half years, the college will offer six sessions, cycling about 90 students through the program and, hopefully, into new biotech-focused jobs.
John Henshaw, one of the instructors for the program, said the 19 students enrolled in the first session range in age from 18 to 60, with an average age of 46.
They include a number of unemployed workers, including one each from two Gardner factories that closed last year, the Nichols & Stone furniture plant and gun manufacturer H&R 1871.
As the economy worsens, Henshaw said, he anticipates enrolling more laid-off workers in future sessions of the program.
Students will spend about a third of their time in the lab and the rest in the classroom, Henshaw said. He said lessons will include technical skills, as well as “soft skills” like following directions and working in teams.
Once they graduate, they’ll be eligible for entry level jobs with titles like “biomanufacturing technician,” monitoring the growth of biological products and doing quality control, according to Charles Weitze, who supervises the program as dean of science and technology. Weitze said those jobs pay around $35,000 to start.
Free, But Valuable
The fact that the program is free for participants could raise a few questions, but so far, college officials aren’t too worried, according to Weitze.
He and his colleagues wrestled with the concern that students might not take their work seriously if they’re not paying for it, but he said making the classes free has allowed them to attract the best possible students.
About 40 people applied for the 19 slots in the first session, he said, and those who got in include people with computer science, chemistry and engineering backgrounds.
The college already offers its own for-credit courses in biotechnology, and it’s conceivable that students who pay for those classes might resent others getting related training for free.
But Weitz said the same $1.6 million Department of Labor grant that made the new program possible also offers benefits for the existing courses.
As part of the grant, the college received small bioreactors, bio-fermenting tools and other equipment. It also received funds to pay for faculty members and administrative support staff.
Weitze said that, while he’s feeling optimistic about the program so far, the college staff and industry consultants who developed the curriculum will be watching it closely to see how everything goes.
If it works well, the college may use the experience to publish a textbook for use in other similar programs around the country. If there are problems, they’ll make adjustments, hopefully in time for the next session, which starts in August.